Just passing through

It’s breakfast. Switzerland. They’ve spelled my name wrong; I let it go uncorrected. It’s half eight in the morning somewhere else. My clothes don’t quite match my surroundings and my shoes don’t quite match my clothes. The February rain is likely falling as snow up on the hills but down here it’s the kind of drizzly rain that makes people walk fast and straight-legged with their shoulders drawn in. Tick-tock, the minutes slide by.

This is shorthaul airline flying. Another airport, another night stop, another approach. Another takeoff, another batch of challenges to sink your teeth into. I’ve been on line a month, maybe three weeks. I reckon I’ve flown more sectors (flights) than many of my longhaul friends have flown in a year.
I feel that I have lived my career so far at high speed; in search of the next challenge, the next tough nut, another puzzle to unravel. Maybe I’m getting old or maybe it was the influence of my more considered long and shorthaul life on the 767 but I have certainly changed my pace of living.

Swinging the nose of the Airbus through the sharp sun we headed for Spain. High pressure gloom gave way the night before to sparkling clearness which in this low, late winter light stretched hard shadows on the earth beneath. I watched my home slide by, the roads I frequently travel, the towns I know well. I traced my ground-bound journeys with my eyes.

The motorway, a silvery ribbon, stretches down to the coast. I can see the airport where I trained to be a commercial pilot, then had my first job flying elderly freighters. Ahead I can see the Channel Islands: all of them. This is pretty unusual. There’s usually some fog or cloud covering some up. The sea is calm, the winds light, the air clear and crisp. I can see the Brest peninsula reaching for the Atlantic, Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, even Sark. It’s like looking at a map.

I look back at the river which points towards my old home base airport and I remember rolling out straight above it and dropping the yawning wheels as we raced back in on a tight visual approach. Rounding the day off with a bit of fun and a snatching a few minutes from the schedule. Delivering papers and freight to the Islands wasn’t easy: grubby aircraft, pipe-smoking captains, early mornings, short tempers, long nights. I couldn’t wait to move on, desperate to fly that 737.

I had been talking with my colleagues about their careers. One was straight from university, another had been an engineer then a teacher, some had flown elsewhere including one who flew a very fancy large corporate jet. I got jealous. I know that I’ll never have enough lifetimes or careers to enjoy all of the facets of this eye-widening industry. It’s unlikely I’ll have the opportunity to experience what they have seen.

One of the reasons I was so keen to fly the shorthaul network was to meet the pilots and colleagues who are defining this next generation. In their words I find the ever-expanding and fascinating flying world that was simply unobtainable (or did not exist) to me when I entered the profession. But as the industry changes my own experience in those early years will never be repeated either. One said to me “…you’re really lucky to have flown something like that…”. He was spot on of course. And I’d forgotten it.

I had explained to him that if he wanted to see the type of aircraft I flew then he should visit a certain museum. He looked at me in a quizzical way. I felt a little old. Like me, the new generation have their eyes on a glittering future with a big airline on a big airliner. Always the next thing, moving onwards and upwards. If I had the opportunity to meet myself in the early 90s I would say: “Stop just passing through. Enjoy it while you’re here”.

There are now so many different career paths in aviation that I feel increasingly uncertain urging new pilots that the airlines are the way to go. Airlines are just one pathway. Follow your heart as well as your head. An airline career is now potentially 10 or more years longer than once it was: maybe enjoy another aspect of aviation before you commit to a life on a roster?

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